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The federal ban on sports betting is tested before the Supreme Court today. Now, we do not know the odds in Vegas on how this case will turn out, but we do know that the United States prohibits sports betting in most states. The court challenge claims that that ban unconstitutionally tramples on state sovereignty. The ban was enacted in 1992 at the instigation of a former amateur and professional sports star-turned-U.S. senator.
Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS COMMENTATOR: Bradley on the left, a pass to Bradley, jump shot - left side - good.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Bill Bradley played 10 years for the New York Knicks, helping them win two NBA championships. The former Princeton star and Rhodes scholar went on to serve three terms in the U.S. Senate, representing New Jersey and winning accolades as a serious legislator. In his 18 years in the Senate, he introduced just one bill related to sports, a ban on sports betting. The bill, which passed easily, banned gambling on sports in 46 states, exempting the four states that had already legalized it and giving all the rest a year in which to legalize it if they wanted to. Bradley says his motivation was simple and personal.
BILL BRADLEY: Betting on sports was betting on human beings here. And I thought that that was wrong - that it turns players into roulette chips. It makes the game - which is a game of high-level competition and excellence - into slot machines. And I don't think that should be what we do in this country.
TOTENBERG: Bradley said there was virtually no congressional opposition to his bill back in 1992, though he says that Donald Trump - with failing investments in Atlantic City casinos - lobbied against it, believing that sports betting was the answer to his financial problems there. After the bill passed, New Jersey did not seek to legalize gambling in its one-year window of opportunity. That was then, and this is now, however.
Now the American Gaming Association estimates that the figure for illegal sports betting has grown to $150 billion a year. And cash-starved states are salivating at the thought of raising billions from legalizing and licensing that activity, not to mention taxing the proceeds. Enter New Jersey, home to at least a half dozen shuttered Atlantic City casinos, a state where Republicans and Democrats, since 2011, have been trying to overturn the federal ban or somehow get around it. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie put it bluntly in 2012...
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CHRIS CHRISTIE: We intend to go forward and allow sports gambling to happen. If someone wants to stop us, then they'll have to take action to try to stop us.
TOTENBERG: Twice the state has tried to legalize sports betting. Twice the major sports leagues and the NCAA have taken the state to court, each time contending that the state is violating the federal ban enacted in 1992. And twice the state has lost in the federal appeals court.
Now, however, the issue has reached the Supreme Court with the state contending that the federal law unconstitutionally commandeers the states to enforce the federal ban. Arguing today's case will be two men, each of whom served as solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration. Representing New Jersey is lawyer Ted Olson, who argues that the federal government cannot tell the states that they have to carry out the federal ban on sports betting.
THEODORE OLSON: That can't say to states, you're just working for us. You take the responsibility. We'll give the instructions. We'll be the puppet master.
TOTENBERG: He rests his case on two prior Supreme Court cases holding that the federal government cannot commandeer a state's apparatus to enforce a federal law. Most notably, in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal law requiring state and local officials to carry out background checks on gun buyers was unconstitutional because it commandeered or conscripted state and local officials to enforce a federal law. But lawyer Paul Clement, representing the sports leagues and backed by the Trump administration, says this case is very different. He contends that the federal ban on sports betting doesn't commandeer anything. All it does is set out what states may not do.
PAUL CLEMENT: Here, they can't authorize sports betting. They can't authorize a state lottery system that involves a component of sports gambling. And, you know, with all due respect to the other side's argument, it's just not that unusual for Congress to tell states that they can't do things that they want to do.
TOTENBERG: All that Congress did here, he argues, was enact a federal policy pre-empting what the states could do. The Supreme Court has often upheld such federal pre-emption statutes - for example, barring states from adding to federally approved labels for pharmaceuticals or barring states from setting trucking rates.
The clash of constitutional theories in this case, however, may be beside the point in the real world. In the modern economic landscape, there's growing tolerance for sports betting. Even among the sports leagues that are fighting New Jersey in this case, there's more interest in Congress changing the federal law. And some have suggested the leagues wouldn't mind losing their Supreme Court case. The reason boils down to one simple word - money. Everybody sees a chance to profit, from the states to the professional sports leagues.
In 2014, the NBA commissioner wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times calling for a, quote, "federal framework to legalize sports betting." The National Football and Hockey leagues have decided to move major sports teams to the capital of sports betting, Las Vegas.
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TOTENBERG: Major League Baseball as well as the NBA and the NHL have invested in sports fantasy companies. And the NFL as well as Major League Baseball are increasingly partnering with data dissemination firms for gambling purposes overseas. So it's no surprise that even if the court does not uncork the bottle of legalized sports betting, Congress just might revisit its ban. For the man who started it all, Bill Bradley, that is dispiriting.
BRADLEY: A lot of things will make money. The question is - what's right, and what's wrong? Do you want your children involved betting on sports? Where - and how about Little League? How about junior high school?
TOTENBERG: After all, he says, there's money to be made by betting on the spread in those games, too. A decision in the sports betting case is expected later in the Supreme Court term.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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